Friday, 11 March 2005

Belarus: OSCE Dismayed Over Media Restrictions

By Roland Eggleston

A senior official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has denounced authorities in Belarus over their treatment of independent media. The OSCE's special commissioner for the media, Miklos Haraszti, said today that restrictions have effectively shut down many non-state media outlets. His statements accompany the release of a broad assessment of media freedoms in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has kept a tight hold on power for more than a decade.

Vienna, 11 March 2005 (RFE/RL) --- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) special commissioner for the media Miklos Haraszti charges in his report that restrictions on the media in Belarus have forced many independent outlets to close.

He also points out that the authorities' curbs and warnings have exclusively targeted nonstate media.

Haraszti visited Minsk last month to discuss the media situation with government officials, journalists, parliamentarians, and members of nongovernmental groups. He said his overall impression is that the independent media are under constant pressure from a harsh media law and administrative discrimination.

Haraszti said the strictures have led to the closure of many outlets. "As a result of the combined effect of the severe media law and administrative discrimination measures, the number of independent outlets sank from one year to another from 50 to 18," he said. "In 2003, it was 50; and in 2004, it was 18 -- because they had to give up under the pressure of the serious circumstances."

Haraszti said the country's media law gives the Information Ministry virtually unchecked powers over the media. It not only has the power to issue warnings to media outlets, he noted, but also may suspend them for one to three months -- or even close them down permanently.

Haraszti said a three-month suspension carries serious consequences for such a business. In such a case, he added, the halt leads to a failure to fulfill other obligations. That gives authorities the added power of being able to blame the outlet for reneging on its contracts.

Haraszti said the information he received from both official and independent sources in Belarus was that warnings and suspensions from the Information Ministry were mostly used against nonstate and independent newspapers. He said he was unable to track down a single warning against a government outlet over content.

Haraszti sharply criticized Belarus's libel laws, and singled out legislation banning insults against public officials. He noted that Belarus is the only country in the OSCE in which two people are serving prison sentences for insulting the dignity of the head of state.

Haraszti said that in his talks with Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich and a Foreign Ministry official, Valery Romashko, he had emphasized the need for a more democratic approach to media freedom. He urged them to accept an OSCE offer to conduct seminars in either Minsk or at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. "Improvement is very much needed, because what we have found was a quite bleak picture of the state of media freedom in that country," he said.

Haraszti said that while he was in Belarus, he was told by the authorities that amendments are being prepared to the media law. Yury Kulakovski, the chairman of the Belarusian National Assembly's Committee for Human Rights, National Relations and the Media, told him that those amendments will be presented to the legislature this month.

But Haraszti said he doubts that timetable can be met. He said he has seen no signs of public debate over the proposed amendments. Independent, nonstate journalists told him there will be no time for a national discussion if the draft amendments is not made public before it is presented to parliament.

Among his recommendations, Haraszti said the Belarusian government should liberalize the media law with OSCE assistance. He also said it should end the practice of suspending newspapers, liberalize libel laws, and repeal the laws on insults.

He noted that the state media are heavily subsidized by the government. He proposed an alternative approach under which the government could privatize state-owned newspapers and television stations. Haraszti stressed the need for the state media to offer truly alternative voices.

Haraszti's critical report prompted the United States to inform the OSCE permanent council that the Belarusian government is "blatantly disregarding" its commitments in regard to freedom of the media. The United States has already complained about the imprisonment of two journalists, Valery Levonevski and Alyaksandr Vasilyev, and said those cases demonstrate the way the government in Minsk seeks to stifle dissent.

The European Union has meanwhile suggested that the Belarusian authorities appear to regard a free exchange of ideas through the media as some kind of threat.